How and when to tell your advisor you’re pregnant (or your partner is)

I have had the experience of telling three advisors I’m having a kid — two as a grad student and one as a postdoc. And probably because I’m a bit noisy, I’ve had others ask me for advice on how to tell their advisors that they’re about to become parents. Below is my suggested game plan. You may naively expect that academic workplaces are family-friendly, as I did the first time around. While the culture is moving in that direction, there is a lot of variation among institutions and fields, and frequently no written policies for graduate students and mixed ones for postdocs. You’re likely going to have to make a lot up as you go, so the more legwork you do before birth, the less blind-sided you will be as you go through the process. Telling your advisor is a key step. Here’s how to do it:

1. Know your advisor

Will your advisor be supportive? This is the most important question to figure out an answer to before you tell. Attitudes surrounding becoming a parent – and especially becoming a mother – in academia can range from quite supportive to very negative. And you can’t assume from your advisor’s gender, age, or parent status what his or her attitude will be.

You can probably classify your advisor’s attitude as:

  • Unilaterally supportive. Your advisor recognizes his job as a mentor, and will help you any way he can to make sure you can be both an involved parent and a successful scholar.
  • Tepidly supportive. Your advisor knows she should be supportive and maybe wants to be supportive, but has reservations. These reservation may be because your scholarship reflects directly on her own or she has never mentored a grad student parent or postdoc parent before and is uncertain of how she can help.
  • Not enthusiastic. Your advisor wishes you were not going to be a parent, and may say so. She may have had a disappointing experience with a previous student or postdoc who became a parent, and may be worried about having another similar experience.
  • Hostile. Your advisor does not believe that parenthood and scholarship are compatible. He likely feels that you are “uncommitted” to your work now that you will be a parent. He may cut off funding for you, stop mentoring you, or try to hand your project to someone else.

How do you find out your advisor’s attitudes? Ask around. If you’re relatively new to the lab, ask senior grad students in your lab if they have a sense of your advisor’s attitudes. You could ask other faculty if your advisor has ever had a student or postdoc with kids and how they have reacted.

Or, if none of these strategies work, bring up the topic with your advisor yourself. You can do this long before you start the kid-begetting process. Here’s one way: if your advisor has kids, there are likely pictures on her desk. Start a conversation about them: “oh, hey, how’s Ashley doing? She’s gotta be a junior this year. Oh, gosh, are you all starting to look at colleges? Blah, blah, blah.” And then transition: “hey, have you ever had a student (or postdoc) who has had kids?” Or, if there’s a student or postdoc in the department who has kids, you can use him or her as a start-up topic of conversation: “Hey, I was just talking to Maria. Did you know she has a toddler? I wonder what that’s like, having a kid while in grad school (or as a postdoc). Have you ever had a student (or postdoc) who has had kids?” Or, if your department has a dearth of obvious parents, you can even use that as a topic starter: “I noticed that there aren’t any students (or postdocs) in the department with kids. Has this always been the case? Why do you think there aren’t any?”

2. Know your rights

In the United States, [1] If you’re not in the US, you probably have some sort of national and possibly regional laws governing your rights with regard to work and parenthood. You’ll want to look them up. your family status and your pregnancy status cannot be used to discriminate against you as an employee (i.e. teaching assistant, research assistant, postdoc employee) or as a student or as a trainee. [2] It’s far from settled law, but recent conversations I’ve had with Title IX experts lead me to believe that many postdocs are legally covered under Title IX as “trainees,” even if they aren’t technically students. That means that as a parent or parent-to-be, you shouldn’t be losing funding, getting worse assignments, or being otherwise marginalized due to your parenthood status. It also means that if you need accommodation to do your courses and/or research because you are pregnant, you are entitled to those accommodations as much as anyone with a disability is. Even if you don’t qualify for FMLA (and you likely don’t as a grad student or postdoc), if you need time to recover from birth, you can’t be kicked out of your program or fired for taking the leave you need (as established by your doctor). If you feel you’re being treated unfairly, seek out the Title IX officer at your school. (There is required to be one, but many universities haven’t come into compliance yet. So if you can’t find one, try the ombudsman’s office and see if they can help you find the right person to talk to.)

3. Know your institution and/or department’s policies

Your department or institution may have formal policies in place for grad student and/or postdoc parents. Of course, they might not. Do a web search and see what you can find. [3] Here are the written policies for parental leave for postdoc parents at a number of top ecology universities. Ask other grad student parents or postdoc parents if they know of any policies. Know that policies for grad students and postdocs are likely to be different, if they’re written down anywhere at all. Know that if you’re supported on an NSF fellowship, NSF defers to the university for parenthood policies. [4] I’m not sure how other funding agencies handle parenthood. You can always call and ask if you’re funded by NIH or EPA or another agency. Know that any policies you find on the web may not, in fact, be the true policies; make sure you get them verified by the appropriate administrative staff (for university policies) or department head (for department policies). If your university or department doesn’t have any formal written policies, then your advisor and/or department get to make up policies for you. This is why it’s important to know your rights.

4. Assess your situation

Combine what you know about your advisor, your rights, and the policies that cover you. Do you have a supportive advisor, but few rights or written policies? You may need your advisor to advocate on your behalf. Do you have a likely hostile advisor, but protective rights and policies? You may need to rely heavily on those rights and policies. Hopefully you have a reasonably supportive advisor and reasonably clear rights and policies. Whatever the case, this is the position you’re working from. Your position will affect your plan and your approach to telling your advisor.

UPDATE: Roxanne has a great comment below. If you’re a biological mom, your situation may also largely depend on the type of research you do. If you work in a lab or in the field, you may need to avoid toxic chemicals, certain types of physical activity, or you may be forbidden from accessing certain resources (e.g. ocean vessels). Roxanne highly recommends consulting with your institution’s Environmental Health and Safety department to determine what precautions will be necessary. You can do this confidentially before you meet with your advisor.

5. Have a plan, any plan

Next, you want to have a plan. The plan communicates to your advisor that you have done your homework and you have a concept of how impending parenthood is going to affect your work. For advisors who haven’t advised parent scholars before, the plan helps them get comfortable with the idea and helps them understand their role in the process. What goes in a plan? This is your best guess as to what you’re going to do in terms of your research and other work obligations as you progress through pregnancy (if you’re a biological mother) and then at birth and the first months after birth. Here are some examples of the sorts of things you might want to include:

  • I will apply for funds for an assistant to help me with field work as my pregnancy progresses
  • I will contact disability services when I am 7 months pregnant for parking and shuttle accommodations so I can get to my office in the last two months of pregnancy
  • I will take a month off after the birth of my child, as allowed by our university’s paternal leave policy
  • I am going to move up my preliminary exam two months from April to February, so that I remain on track in my grad program
  • I will arrange to set up Skype on my own computer and on a computer in our lab, so I can Skype in to lab meetings when I can’t be there in person
  • I am rearranging the order in which I do analyses on existing data and new lab work to accommodate necessary precautions on chemical exposure while pregnant
  • I will work with you to find funding so the lab work I’m doing can continue while I am on maternity leave
  • I plan to be completely offline while I am on maternity leave, so I will delegate ongoing responsibilities during this time to these named lab members

The main goal is to communicate to your advisor that you’ve thought about how your research will continue, though there may need to be changes and accommodations. You should stress to your advisor that this is a preliminary plan and that you and your advisor will necessarily need to be flexible. You may not know exactly what you will need ahead of time. Additionally, having a child is a series of lotteries and you will likely encounter unexpected events. Planning for flexibility is key.

6. Time your tell, and make your Ask(s)

Finally, it’s time to tell your advisor. You’ve got a sense of what his reaction will be. You’ve done your homework and know your rights and resources. You’ve got a plan to present. When and how do you actually tell?

How far ahead of birth to tell your advisor is a personal decision. The earlier you tell, the more time you’ll have to develop plans and contingency plans – either in collaboration with your advisor or through other resources. But I don’t know of too many people who tell their advisors before their immediate family and closest friends. In general, it’s better to tell your advisor directly, rather than having her hear through the grapevine. So plan to tell him before you tell all your peers. (Obviously if you have some close peer friends who can refrain from spreading the info, feel free to tell them first.) If you’re going to be a biological mother, you don’t have as much flexibility as biological fathers or adoptive parents; your body will likely tell by about 5 or 6 months of pregnancy, whether or not you decide to tell in words.

For targeting an actual date to tell, figure out where your advisor is in terms of her own business. If you can, try to avoid a particularly stressful time in your advisor’s life, whether that is the first weeks of a semester, the weeks before submitting a major grant proposal, or pinch time for field work. If you’ve got a good rapport with your advisor and he is likely to have a non-negative reaction, I suggest you simply schedule a meeting and tell him in person. Present your plan. Ask for advice; maybe he knows of some resources that you haven’t encountered.  If you are worried about your advisor’s reaction, it’s okay to tell her by email. In fact, it may be a good idea. An advisor who is lukewarm or hostile to the idea of advising a parent scholar will likely have a very negative initial reaction, but may come around with enough time. Present your plan in the email. Make it clear that you intend to be both a parent and a researcher. Give your advisor time to process the news before having a more extended conversation about it.

You might need to make one or more Asks, whether that’s in person or by email. What I mean by this is that you may need to ask your advisor for time, money, material resources, permission, or advocacy that will enable you to succeed as a scholar while also becoming a new parent. Your Asks should be framed in a win-win sort of way:

  • The semester I give birth, I won’t be able to be a teaching assistant. Can you help me find another source of funding so that I can continue to make progress on my graduate studies during this time? We both want me to meet the goals of the graduate program.
  • I will be on parental leave for a month, so I won’t be able to feed the lab critters every day. Can you designate someone else to take over this task during this time? We both need live critters to do our research.
  • In the first year after my child is born, I would like to have permission to work from home and attend meetings by Skype as much as feasible. This flexibility will allow me to maximize my time to make the most progress on my analysis and manuscript writing. We both want to see these manuscripts published as soon as possible.

Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Advisors, by definition, have a vested interest in seeing you succeed. They may not be able to give you exactly what you ask for, but all but the most hostile should be able to help you think through possible options.

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Open data, authorship, and the early career scientist

About a year ago, my coauthors and I published a huge dataset of more than a million annotated images of animals from a camera trap network in the Serengeti. The lead author, Dr. Swanson, and I are both early career scientists, and we both put a ton of time and effort into this dataset. We made the decision to publish the dataset as its own product after more than a half-dozen researchers in other fields (computer vision, citizen science, education) contacted us to ask if they could use our data. Our graduate advisor (and PI-on-paper) wondered whether this was a good idea. If we published the data, he worried, other people could take it and do the sorts of community ecology research that we were hoping to do with it.

I’ve heard this worry a lot about open data. I’ve had this worry myself as a grad student. But as far as I can tell, having made this dataset (and others) available, is that the worry about being scooped is way overblown for most ecology datasets. That doesn’t mean it can’t or doesn’t happen. But I think it’s a rare case when it does. (Can anyone point to a time it’s happened?) Instead, opening up the data has meant two great things. First, when people contact us about our data and camera trap network (which happens monthly), we can just point them to the dataset and it saves us a ton of time. Second, there are ecologists using our data in ways we never imagined, including looking at community ecology in groups of animals we don’t (small mammals, lizards versus large mammals) and investigating wildlife disease.

Open data is great!

But. (You knew there was going to be a but.) Here’s something I haven’t heard proponents of Open Science talking about much. If you publish a dataset, you pretty much lose control over authorship.

Traditionally, the way data in ecology worked (and still mostly works) is that you go through a lot of effort to create a dataset. Then you keep it. Hopefully you’re smart and you back it up and have other safeguards to make sure it doesn’t get compromised. But usually it just sits on your desktop computer somewhere. Then people find out about your data. Probably you published something. Maybe sometimes through word of mouth. And if people want to use your data, they contact you and say, “hey, I have a great idea for an analysis and paper that needs your data. Can we collaborate?” Often this is code for, “if you give me your data, I’ll give you co-authorship on the resulting publications.”

And there’s a reason for this customary tit-for-tat. Producing ecological datasets is far from trivial. It’s also nice to know who is using your data and for what. As a data-creator, you want to make sure your data is not misused. Not only do you care about the science coming out right, but because your reputation is attached to the data, a misuse reflects poorly on you, even if it’s done by someone else.

The LTER network has an explicit data policy that reads, “The Data Set has been released in the spirit of open scientific collaboration. Data Users are thus strongly encouraged to consider consultation, collaboration and/or co-authorship with the Data Set Creator.” Not too long ago this policy was on a site-by-site basis and — at least for the sites that I used data from — contacting the data creator was a requirement for publishing using existing data.

For early career researchers, there’s a super important reason for this custom of co-authorship when re-using data. Number of publications matters. It just does. If I have spent some sizeable fraction of my nascent career on developing a particular dataset, I need to get credit when that dataset is used for advancing science. And the truth is that number of publications counts way more than number of citations.

So here’s the problem: anyone can use data from our big published dataset (please do!), and they will be right and proper to simply cite it. If we hadn’t published the dataset, then people would have to contact us about collaborating and my coauthors and I could rack up more publications. Perhaps the data would be used less overall, because it’s a bit more effort to exchange a few emails than to simply download a dataset. The crucial point is that Open Data may be good for science, but it may be bad for scientists — especially early career ones. Not because the authors of open data will be scooped, but because the authors lose credit for their data relative to authors who do don’t make their data open.

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Experiments in efficiency: cooking while peer-reviewing

In computer science, laziness is a virtue. The term “lazy” is basically used as a shorthand for saying you should strive for efficiency so you don’t spend time writing code you could have avoided writing if you’d been smarter about your coding design. I’ve always generally keep an eye towards efficiency in my work, and never more so since having kids, when efficiency is the only way to be moderately successful in both work and other-than-work life. (By which I mean avoiding inefficiency, not becoming hyper-efficient, which has its own problems.)

I try to do all the standard established work efficiency things – make lists, batch tasks, delegate when I can, turn email off – and household efficiency things – make lists, consolidate shopping trips, have schedules for the kids [1] Schedules are useful for maintaining some semblance of peace and harmony in a household with kids. Or at least as much peace and harmony as you can have when your kid is in the highly-opinionated-and-completely-irrational phase, in which any of the following can produce a complete meltdown: He wants to be both eating and playing in the living room simultaneously and the laws of physics are not cooperating. The red car and the blue car both need be occupying the same volume of space and the laws of physics are not cooperating. The green car needs to be half on the table with the other half hovering in midair and the laws of physics are not cooperating. The socks will not fit over the shoes. The very large ball refuses to roll under the couch unlike its more obedient smaller cousins. The door that was closed this morning is now open. Mommy is wearing a red shirt. Why yes, kiddo #2 is turning TWO this week. How did you know?, and so forth. And I keep an eye out for efficiency tactics that are specific to my life – things that aren’t necessarily applicable to all people and so don’t make the usual Top 10 list. For example, I can write papers blog on my bus commute, whereas many people don’t have bus commutes or else get motion sick and can’t write on their commutes even if they are on a bus.

It’s never clear ahead of time which tricks will work and which will fail, so it’s kinda fun to try them. Example situation: working with a newborn asleep on lab. Trick that didn’t work for me, but may work for you: dictating to software, so that you can write while parenting. My problem: every time I talked, the baby woke up. Trick that did work for me: Getting an iPad that I could perch on the arm of my chair so that I could read and research and do email one-handed.

So last week I was working on a review, and we had a tricky childcare situation, since our usual provider was on vacation. And it was 5:00 and I absolutely positively had to stop working to make dinner so that my family wouldn’t starve [2] or at least get really cranky which sometimes feels almost as bad. But I was in the middle of my first read-through and I really, really wanted to finish, because I hate stopping things in the middle of things. I briefly considered whether I could read and chop vegetables at the same time, but of course, that’s ridiculous. And then it occurred to me that I could try having my computer read to me!

Most (all?) computers have an accessibility feature where the computer will read text. It took me less than five minutes to figure out where mine was and set it up. Still 55 minutes to cook, so I was okay. I told it to start reading in the middle of the paper I was reviewing. And then I had to take a couple minutes to figure out how to slow down – slow way down – the reading speed. Then my computer read to me while I cooked! Overall, I give the trick a lukewarm thumbs up. Here’s what I discovered:

  • I needed more volume. Cooking is loud. There’s water running, and onions sizzling, and the exhaust fan. And moreover, I was moving around the kitchen, so I wasn’t always close to my computer. Next time, I could potentially hook up my Bluetooth speakers to actually get more volume. But probably better are wireless earbuds or headphones, so the sound could stay with me as I moved around.
  • At the end of every page, the computer read me the watermark and the footer and the header of the next page. It was rather annoying, especially since the main text was usually in the middle of a sentence. And then at the beginning of every section, the computer read to me the line numbers. I stood there dumbstruck as it recited, “forty-six, forty-seven, forty-eight, … “ So several times, I had to stop cooking, run over to the computer, and move the cursor so it would skip the numbers. I can’t think of any way around these particular annoyances. If you can, let me know!
  • Cooking is a bit messy, and having to interact with my computer was cumbersome, as I had to make sure my fingers were relatively dry and free of food whenever I did so.
  • Listening to the paper slowed down my cooking. It’s true what they say about multitasking: your brain isn’t wired to do two unrelated tasks simultaneously. But it didn’t slow it down by much. Maybe an extra 5 to 10 minutes for an hour of cooking. If it was going to take me 20 minutes to finish reading the paper anyway, that’s still a few minutes saved. More importantly to me, I got to finish the paper, while also getting dinner on the table on time!
  • Relatedly, I had to pause the paper-reading a couple times to read a recipe or search for an ingredient that wasn’t where I thought it was. I definitely couldn’t do anything cooking-wise that required more than minimal attention while also paying attention to the paper.
  • Cooking while listening to the paper meant I didn’t catch all the details of the paper (maybe in part because of the volume issue). And that’s okay for a first read-through of a paper that I’m going to reread in more depth anyway. But the trick might not work for all papers.

I’m probably not going to be listening to papers while cooking very much, but it’s nice to know that I could. I think perhaps it might be a useful trick for a time when I have a lot of repetitive work to do (e.g. mounting insects) that doesn’t involve much thinking. I usually listen to podcasts or streaming radio when I do. Instead, I could listen to some of those papers in my Interesting Papers To Read directory that I never seem to get around to.

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Thoughts on my first double-blind peer review

Not too long ago I agreed to review a paper after skimming the abstract and looking up the journal. When I went to actually do the review, I saw that the journal has a double-blind policy, and so I couldn’t see the names or affiliations of the authors and they couldn’t see mine. (The latter part here is standard practice for all but the “open review” journals.)

I’ve read about double-blind review, but never actually participated as author or reviewer before, so I got a little thrill when I realized I’d be participating. In theory, I really like the concept, because there is reason to believe that unconscious bias affects how reviewers review papers. After all, unconscious bias affects pretty much everything. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of good hard evidence for reviewer unconscious bias, mostly because this issue has only come into the general scientific awareness relatively recently, and – I’ve read – it’s hard to actually do a good study. Rather than feel like, “no need to get excited about reviewer implicit bias until there’s evidence,” I think we ought to be particularly motivated to get some really solid studies done. Because if it’s a problem, then it’s a very serious one.

My particular views on implicit bias come from realizing my own. Several years ago, I took this awareness test (choose “Gender-Science IAT” from the list to do the one I did). And I started paying attention to my own thoughts. And I realized something unsettling. In early grad school, I frequently skipped the authors section when first reading a paper, because I pretty much didn’t know who anyone was and the names were meaningless to me. Then, if it was a paper I liked, I’d note the names of the authors, so I could remember them. If the first author’s name was female, I’d be surprised – like, “oh wow! Hawkes is a woman!” Because the thing is, when I read a science paper, the default narrator’s voice in my head is male. It just is. These days, I note authors’ names before reading, and frequently enough I know the authors or at least know of them. But every once in a while, I’m still surprised by author gender – almost invariably I’ve read a paper that lists only first initials and then come to find out that the author is female later in some other way.

Okay, so this is horribly embarrassing. I mean, I consider myself to be pretty free of gender stereotypes. I’m a self-described tomboy. I’ve spent most of my life in male-dominated activities doing male gendered things. My husband and I are all in on equal parenting and householding. I know tons of accomplished female scientists and other highly respected women in male-dominated fields. So what gives? Culture. I am simply a product of my culture – just like everyone else. And so if I’ve got anti-female implicit bias, I figure pretty much everyone else does, too.

Back to double-blind review. Does implicit bias matter when reviewing? Very possibly. We don’t know for sure yet. [1] But I think that a good study will look in the math or physics or engineering fields first, where power to detect such a bias is likely higher. Even if it doesn’t matter or matter very much, the perception that it matters is still affecting where people send manuscripts. So, at the very least, it matters indirectly.

How is double blind actually conducted? I imagine there are variations on a theme at different journals. Here’s what the journal I reviewed for did:

  • It specified that the author(s) were “blinded” and didn’t provide their names or affiliations
  • Oddly, it also “blinded” the Date Submitted, but not the Total Time in Review. (shrug)
  • Within the text itself, someone at the journal had redacted some bits of text here and there and replaced it with (Removed by [journal]).

I found this curious, as I am no stranger to reading and writing words that can’t be seen by most people, and I know from first-hand experience that redacting a document is awfully time-consuming, tedious, and error-prone. It’s a task that no one enjoys. It’s expensive. And to be honest, I’m not sure how useful it is in the case of double-blind review.

I don’t know the authors of the study I reviewed. But I can easily guess the nationality of their institution – and even what part of the country they’re in. If I wanted to do a little googling, I’m pretty sure I could figure out who exactly they are. And I’ve read critiques saying that because double-blind often doesn’t really blind the reviewer to the authors’ identities, double-blind peer review is an exercise in futility.

But I’m not so sure. Let’s divide the relationships between author and reviewer into three categories. First, we have authors and reviewers who know one another personally or know one another’s work well. They may have collaborated at some point, or more likely, they just study the same sorts of things and so read one another’s papers a lot. They may meet at conferences and workshops because of their mutual interests. When a reviewer reads a paper by someone whose work (or whose lab’s work) they know, they’re likely to figure out the authors if the review is double-blind. But I’d argue that this is okay. The reviewer already has an impression of the author based on other experiences, and so implicit bias may not be an issue. [2] Proof is left as an exercise for the reader

Now let’s consider reviewers who don’t know the authors in real life, and have never even heard of them. Let’s say that, like in my case, there’s enough information in the manuscript that the reviewer could figure out the authors’ likely name(s) if they tried. My question would be: who would bother? I mean, who has the time to go sleuthing for names? [3] If you do have that time, could you maybe sign up to do a bit more reviewing instead of sleuthing? So, here double-blind works to counter implicit bias in that the reviewer still doesn’t know who the authors are, even though the blind has technically failed.

Finally, we have the straightforward case of a reviewer who doesn’t know the authors and in which it isn’t possible to tell from the manuscript who they are. In this case the blinding works, and there’s not much more to say.

Assuming that reviewers aren’t willing to go the extra mile to uncover author identities and that reviewers who can figure out who the authors are just by reading the manuscript already have an impression of the authors, making double-blind really simple might be just as good as having it be complex. The strategy would be this: Just don’t provide author names and affiliations. That’s it. Really simple to do. Really fast. Really inexpensive.

As for my review, I signed it, as I always do. [4] I think the retaliation fear is way overblown, and I’m happy to be a guinea pig. But I’m glad I got to try a blind review, as it modified my thoughts on the double-blind process.

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From the beginning: my path to ecology

Meg Duffy is collecting ecologists’ origin stories, and who doesn’t like to write about themselves? So here is my story of How I Became an Ecologist.

My story begins on the high plains of the Great Karoo in South Africa. I’d never been anywhere like it. The land is flat and dry and ruddy, dotted by unfamiliar shrubs and grasses. Off on the horizons, pastel mountains and koppies interrupt the progression from earth to sky. For someone from the forested Northeast US, the openness is a little bit invigorating, a little bit frightening. During the day, I spot a tortoise. At night, I gaze up at an unfamiliar sky and see the Southern Cross for the first time. I’m here visiting my college friend Corinna. She’s doing a Fulbright year, studying these semi-desert plants of the Karoo and the effect of drought-stress and cattle grazing on them. I barely follow the aims of her science and wonder why what seems like scientific minutiae have any importance, but I am fascinated by the landscape. While she works, I pepper her with natural history questions she can’t possibly know the answers to, because nobody does. But I don’t know that yet. She suggests that maybe I should become an ecologist.

Except, my story doesn’t really begin there. It begins across the ocean, at a community college in Maryland, where I’m attending an evening introductory biology class. I hold a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and a good-paying job in that field. But I’m unsatisfied with my day job and so have been filling my evenings and weekends with more meaningful activities. This fall, I’m going back to school to learn what I might have learned in high school, had things played out differently. My fellow students mostly have complex lives. Many are working during the day and attending college at night to earn their first degree. My lab partner works two jobs and has kids. He barely makes it through each class awake. We are reading a chapter on cell organelles, and the chapter explains that no one really know what some of the organelles do. I assume the content is a bit out-of-date and corner the teacher after class, only to have it confirmed. I’m incredulous. I’m infuriated. I’m intrigued. How is it possible that we don’t understand these bits of our own cells – this material that is in the first few chapters of an introductory biology course?

Except, that’s not the beginning either. Perhaps the beginning is when I am a child living at the edge of a small woods that I am free to explore. I learn the paths intimately, climb the trees, make pretend. I find ladies slippers and Indian pipes. I know how to walk quietly through the woods, how to spy on the occasional dog-walker or other interloper without being seen or heard. These are my woods, and I retreat to them when I am upset or sad or lonely. But I long to know more. I want to know the names of the trees, which plants are edible, the identities of the birds that I hear. But it’s the pre-Internet era, and I don’t have access to this information. My parents are both in the computer field. They don’t walk in my woods.

But maybe my story actually begins when I decide to be a computer scientist. I’d always wanted to be a scientist, I was a whiz at math, and I’d taught myself to program. Now I am holding a four-year scholarship that I can take to any college, as long as I major in computer science. The scholarship is a diversity program run by the federal government and stipulates that I work for the government for about four years upon graduation. The program has not yet been ruled unconstitutional. The scholarship means that I can go to the college of my choice, but also importantly, that there will be enough money left in the family coffers for my younger brother to go the school of his choice, too. I can’t say no, and I don’t want to. A full ride with a guaranteed job is an amazing deal.

The other beginning takes place in a three-bedroom roach-infested apartment that I share with Mike and Tim on the outskirts of Washington D.C. We live steps from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on the border of gentrified Northwest and the not-yet-subsumed melting pot of Northeast. NOAA means nothing to me. Being childless, listless, and bored, I’m perusing the bookshelves where Mike and Tim stash their leisure reading. Tim works for an anti-hunger non-profit. Mike works for the National Academies. Both are intensely interested in land-use policy and social and environmental justice. I have grown up without any real civic education, either at home or at school. Mike and Tim take me to protests. They introduce me to civics, to international policy, to power structures, and I gobble it all up. I pick up A Sand County Almanac and Guns, Germs and Steel. I read Edward Abbey, John McPhee, Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva. Tim and his girlfriend Erin subscribe to Bull Run Farm, which sells its vegetables through the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, and they give me their leftover produce. The food is local, pesticide-free, and delicious.

But all that only really matters because I met Ilana and she asked me to cook with her. I’d met Ilana in Brown’s introductory computer science course, but it’s the only computer class she’ll ever take. Ilana is thoughtful and extrospective, a true intellectual. She will take a semester off to read books because school is interfering with her ability to learn. I love talking with her. Her food co-op needs more members and she encourages me to sign up, though I’ve never really cooked before and certainly not for 16 to 20 people. But two people cook each meal and I’m carefully paired each time with a more experienced member. We cook vegetarian kosher food with the Moosewood Cookbook as our sacred text, and I am introduced to both eating and preparing a diverse array of food. I shed my childhood pickiness and learn to appreciate real food for the first time.

Of course, everyone’s story really begins with their parents. My mother and father each had unusual upbringings, though I didn’t understand that until much later. Endlessly curious, as all children are, my mother learned to stop asking questions early on, for fear of her father abandoning her, too. My father, also endlessly curious, had to find his own answers, as the oldest of four children in a foreign country with an absentee father and a mother who had to learn the customs and language of the family’s new country. Both my parents have a fierce devotion to education. When I started primary school and they found the local school to be inadequate for me, they sold their beloved old house and moved the family to a much smaller home in a nearby wealthy town with an excellent public school system. Both the old house and the new house have woods out back.

When I was born, my mother made a promise to herself to try answer all of my questions, to never snap back “because I said so,” to never ignore my curiosity out of hand. As a parent now, I understand how hard it is to keep that sort of promise, but she did. In the era before the Internet, my mother didn’t always have all the answers. One winter, I worried about the Eastern painted turtles that wandered up into our yard from the neighboring wetland during the summers. I had just learned about warm-blooded and cold-blooded. Were the turtles all dead? They couldn’t be. But how could they survive New England winters? My mother didn’t know, so she took me to the library. We searched the kids’ books; useless. We searched the adult books, but found no answers. We asked the librarians, and learned nothing. We even wrote in to the science Q&A column of the newspaper. The question was never published. A couple years later my mom stumbled upon the answer and told it to me excitedly. She hadn’t forgotten my question; she honored my curiosity. I would find, as I grew up, that my fearlessness in asking questions would occasionally annoy people. But much more often, it would open doors.

In the beginning, as a kid, my favorite TV programs are PBS nature specials. I watch every single one I can, engrossed by animals I’ve never seen, landscapes I could never have imagined. I envy the naturalists and scientists who are profiled in these programs their adventures. But I know, as any child does who is encouraged to be reasonable, that TV personalities have unobtainable jobs. Just like the professional basketball player and the movie actress, the stars of nature specials are in a special class of not-quite-real people who somehow get to be celebrities on TV. I don’t see ‘naturalist’ or ‘ecologist’ as real jobs; I’ve never even heard of either.

It might be that my story begins in a windowless inner office of the National Security Agency. It is not long after airplanes fly into two New York office buildings, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. It is quite a while before Edward Snowden. I like my job. I hate my job. I am doing research, which I am good at and is fun. I enjoy excelling at my job. I loathe what my efforts might be used for. I am forced to think about ethics, individual responsibility, meaning, personal fulfillment. I quit my job the day my scholarship contract is up.

It might also be that my story begins on one of the many days I sigh and walk into the Sunlab, the huge room full of Unix workstations that acts as the community center of the Brown computer science department. On this particular day, I walk in and see the phrase “Gentlemen, welcome to the Sunlab” scrawled across the announcement white board. I point out to the Sunlab Coordinator, a student whose job it is to oversee the lab, that the message is sexist. He gets defensive. “No, it’s not. It’s from a movie, don’t you know? It’s just a joke. Geez.” Fight Club has just come out, but I haven’t seen it, will never see it. Resigned, I find a computer and sit down to work. It’s just not worth the fight. I am smugly satisfied to see that the message has been erased when I finish my assignment and leave. But long term, I don’t really want to spend all my time fighting the boys’ club that is computer science. I wish I could change my major.

That same week I probably met up with Corinna to go to the soup seminar at the Urban Environmental Lab. We’ll also meet Ben, my on-and-off boyfriend who will eventually become my husband. They are both environmental science majors in a department that hosts a weekly seminar presented by an environment professional. As a proper undergraduate, the lure of free food (soup!) and the comradery of two of my closest friends is hard to resist, and I find myself at many such soup seminars, listening to ecologists and conservationists talk about the work they do. For the first time, it enters my mind that maybe it is possible to have a job studying and protecting nature. But, of course, I have my scholarship and my fixed major. I don’t think too much about “what if.”

From the start, I knew biology wasn’t for me. In seventh grade, I had my first biology class. We memorized things now long forgotten and dissected worms and frogs. The stench of formaldehyde would stay with me forever. In high school, it was clear what the hierarchy of sciences was. The lowest levels were earth science and biology. Next was chemistry. And highest was physics. I was smart and ambitious. I chose earth science over biology, then took chemistry, physics, and advanced physics. My guidance counselor protested. “If we were to require any science course, it would be biology,” he explained. I ignored him. I knew that biology was nothing but memorization, which I hated, while chemistry and physics were centered around math, which I loved. Even still, dear Mr. Flight, my earth science teacher and one of my best-ever teachers, planted the seed of environmental education. He ended each class with a Fact of the Day, such as an exposition of dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico due to nutrient run-off from Midwest agriculture. Fifteen years later, I was horrified to discover that the Grown Ups had not yet fixed this obviously terrible problem.

My new beginning, the start of the rest of my life, takes place in Wisconsin, on a small family farm near the scenic river town of Osceola. I am in the Midwest because Ben, now my fiancé, has started a geology PhD at the University of Minnesota. I am on a farm because I want to do something as different from computer work as possible. This is a CSA farm, run by the husband-wife team of Paul and Chris. We plant, cultivate, pick, pack, and deliver vegetables to the 300 subscribers who have invested in the farm activities from the outset. The farm has no nutrient runoff into the nearby river. I am enamored with organic agriculture and the CSA economic model, and think I might become a farmer. Paul has a PhD in plant biology and delivers lectures to me and the two other interns as we haul boxes of produce, pull weeds from the soil. I learn about the nitrogen cycle, about legumes and their Rhizobia. I learn about powdery mildew and crop rotations. I learn about soils and decomposition. I learn about insect pests and their natural enemies. I learn to identify plant stress at a glance, about calcium deficiency and plant competition. Despite – or perhaps because of – his PhD, Paul decries the ivory tower. He left it for a reason. University researchers, even extension researchers, are out of touch with what happens in the real world, out of touch with the needs and constraints of actual farmers, actual land managers. And despite his vast knowledge of plants biology, I drive him crazy with my incessant questions. I question his practices, his routines. He tells me that this is a business. You have to pick a method and do it, or you won’t have any vegetables to sell. There is not much time for experimentation on a small family farm.

I spend the summer placing tiny seeds into divided trays, watering, picking and pulling, hauling, sorting, building a greenhouse, learning to drive a tractor. I love working outside every day. I get up early to witness the peaceful mornings when the low light makes the eggplants and peppers and summer squash glow with vibrant colors. The palms of my hands toughen and I find a quiet reverie in weeding row after row of carrots, row after row of spinach, row after row of cilantro. The smells of basil, of tomato vine, of damp earth infuse my being and I feel for the first time in my adult life that I am really living. The work is meaningful and fulfilling. It is also hard toil, and by mid-autumn I am physically stronger than I’ve ever been, but tired. Very tired. I know this is not quite my path, but I don’t know yet what is.

I spend the next year in Minneapolis, pondering, reading, volunteering, fencing, making new friends. I want a job that is meaningful, and a job that is intellectually stimulating. I want a job in which I am not stuck behind a computer all day every day and in which I can make a difference. By now, the world of academic research is less unfamiliar. Corinna is at the University of California at Davis, finishing up an ecology PhD. Ben is in the second year of his geology PhD. Tim is about to start a geography PhD at Michigan State. I find the University of Minnesota’s conservation biology program online, and peruse its pages. I email a dozen professors affiliated with the program and ask to talk with them. About half reply and agree to meet with me. I am excited by their research, attracted by their friendliness. One of them, Craig Packer, will become one of my future dissertation advisors. I sign up for the intro undergrad ecology course through the office of continuing education The teacher for the course has good reviews in the undergrad ratings catalog. His name is David Tilman. Partway through the course, I go to his office hours and tell him that he screwed up his lecture, mistaking the prefix mega- for giga- when talking about the carbon cycle. Our conversation ends with him hiring me part-time to work on an environmental economics project. He will become my other dissertation advisor. That fall, I apply to the ecology program, and Paul writes me a letter of recommendation.

I think most people’s lives are not straight lines, one thing leading to another, but rather a skein of threads, each twisting and turning, becoming entangled with others, stopping, starting again. We crave a linear story, a simple one. And I could fit my story into a straight narrative if necessary. But the truer story is messy. I have become an ecologist. I work as an ecologist now. Who knows what the future holds.

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Postdocs, don’t buy that yacht just yet

If you’re an early career scientist and you spent any amount of time on the interwebs this past week, you no doubt caught sight of headlines proclaiming great news for U.S. postdocs: “Postdoc pay to increase due to new overtime rule,” “US law could increase postdoc pay,” “Fair Pay for Postdocs.” Well, I hate to be a killjoy, but I’ve been around the sun enough times to know how these sorts of laws play out in real life.

Let’s take a look at what the law actually says. For starters, it does explicitly talk about science postdocs as one of the target groups of “white collar” employees.[1] and explicitly rules out grad students, humanities postdocs with mostly teaching duties, and teachers, including professors, which seems inane to me, but there you have it. Its main goal is to get rid of uncompensated overtime for people making less than 40th percentile of the salary in the poorest part of the country for professional work. [2] Yes, that’s right: on average, science postdocs make less than the median salary in the poorest part of the country. Let that sink in a bit. So what it does is specify a threshold ($47,476 initially and updated every three years) below which you must be paid 1.5 times your hourly salary for any time worked over 40 hours per week.

Now what does this mean in practice? Well, most ecology postdocs earn substantially less than $47,476 in salary. Starting December 1, if they work more than 40 hours per week, they’ll be paid extra! Great! Except not great. Except not great, because PI budgets are fixed and nobody has budgeted for overtime in the grants that currently exist. There’s not any extra money to cover overtime, and so there is a strong incentive for PIs and institutions to ensure that postdocs are not working more than 40 hours per week — at least in the short term.

All the popular press pieces seem to think that within a few years postdoc salaries will simply go up to the threshold so that no one will have to worry about postdocs working overtime. However, they focus on biomed research where postdoc salaries are already reasonably close to that threshold. When I was looking for ecology postdocs a couple years ago, salaries were typically offered in the $38,000 to $44,000 range. I don’t think most PIs are going to give a $42,000 postdoc a blanket 13% raise. In fact, PIs might perversely reduce postdoc salaries so that they have more room to budget for overtime, in attempt to keep the total slice a postdoc’s salary takes out of a grant budget stable.

Which brings us to a major point: how many postdocs record their hours? My guess is it’s fewer than half. Some institutions require postdocs to punch a clock, but my impression is that many don’t. Well, that’s going to change. Institutions are going to have to make a calculation about whether to insist that all PIs hire postdocs at (or above) the threshold or whether to track postdoc time. And I think ecology PIs are going to push back against hiring postdocs at a considerable premium. [3] But hopefully, I’ll be wrong. Most universities are already doing timesheets for administrative staff, work-study students, and the like, and it probably isn’t that hard to force postdocs into existing systems.

So I think we’re going to start being put on a clock. Which sucks. (Been there, done that.) Beyond the hassle of the extra paperwork, once you start being on a clock, you lose flexibility. That’s because you’re in theory being paid for 40 hours per week. Right now, if you need to work extra long one week (deadline, experiment, etc.) you can slack off a bit the next. If you have a really crappy home life for a month for whatever reason, you can make it up another time. Postdocs are used to this sort of flexibility, and for me, it is the #1 reason I am still in academia as a mom of two little kids. There are some days where my productivity is maximized by taking a two-hour nap and then working hard for six hours instead of blearily trudging through eight hours barely awake and accomplishing very little. I do not work exactly 40 hours per week every week, and I wouldn’t want to be forced to. It doesn’t make sense both from an efficiency standpoint or from a work-life balance standpoint.

But wait, you might say. It’s still possible to grant flexibility even when you have timesheets and an expectation of 40 hours per week. That’s true in theory. But what happens in reality is that when budgets are strained, extra hours worked at one time (“comp time”) become a liability to the payer, because the payer is on the hook to pay for those hours if they aren’t used by the employee. For example, when the Sequester went into effect, the Department of Interior (which employs most federal ecologists) and other parts of government clamped down on the use of comp time. Employees used to being able to flex their hours from week to week were no longer allowed to. The reason was simply that if employees didn’t use those comp hours, the government would have to pay out for them. And they didn’t have the budget flexibility to do that.

The law allows employers to cap the hours postdocs are allowed to work at 40 hours. And I think what’s going to happen is that most PIs are going to tell their postdocs that they can only work 40 hours unless there’s a special circumstance dictated by research needs in which more than 40 hours are needed (experiment, field work, etc.) Which brings into question, what exactly is “work” time for a postdoc? On one hand, I think this law is good in that it may force a conversation about what “counts” as postdoc work – something that is desperately needed.

Postdocs are underpaid, a fact that is typically justified by highlighting the fact that they are trainees. Postdocs are working, yes, but more importantly, they are building their skills and CV for an eventual permanent position. NSF requires that grant proposers that intend to support a postdoc provide a Postdoc Mentoring Plan, to emphasize that the postdoc is not just an employee, but rather someone in training for the next rung of the career ladder. And yet, when PIs are faced with a cap of 40 hours per week, are they going to allow activities that don’t directly contribute to the funded research?

Due to the long time frames of research, it’s expected that a postdoc will be finishing up papers from graduate school and possibility former postdoc positions. These papers are essential to the advancement of the postdoc, but are a liability for the current PI. I think currently, most PIs rightly tolerate a fraction of postdoc time going to these old projects. But I think most PIs believe their postdocs work more than 40 hours. So if we’re up against a 40-hour maximum, is working on old projects “work” that should count under the 40 hour rule? Or are these projects a personal hobby that postdocs should do on their own time? This is a tension that already exists, but I think it will become intensified under the new law.

And there’s an additional question about what counts as “work” that is ubiquitous across career stages, but only becomes an issue once you start counting hours. Our work as scientists is in large part a cerebral one. And for the most part, we don’t turn our brains off from our work when we leave the office. So if you’re lying awake at night thinking about your experimental design, is that work? If you have your analysis breakthrough while in the shower or on your commute, is that work? If you figure out why your code isn’t running while you’re out on a jog, does that count? What counts for the timesheet? Does inadvertent work count for overtime?

Here’s how I think the law is going to play out for U.S. ecology postdocs:

  1. In the short term, no one is going to get a raise just get to the threshold. Maybe over longer time frames, postdoc salaries will gradually rise more than they would have anyway. Maybe. (But they might go down instead to adjust for payment of overtime hours.)
  2. For postdocs of unscrupulous PIs, nothing much will change. The postdocs who were previously overworked and exploited, will mostly continue to be so. They will just be “encouraged” to fudge their timesheets on the threat of the PI not signing them. [4] If you don’t turn in your timesheet, you don’t get paid. And everywhere requires a supervisor to sign off on the hours written on the timesheet. What could go wrong? Eventually there will be a lawsuit (though probably not in ecology) by postdocs who were coerced into recording 40-hour workweeks when more hours were regularly worked. And as a result, unscrupulous PIs will get sneakier.
  3. For postdocs of scrupulous PIs, two things will happen. In the short term, PIs will get a sense of how much work postdocs can actually get done in 40 hours. And it will likely be less than they were expecting. That will put PIs in a bind, because, as I mentioned, their budgets (in the short term) are fixed. To get the work done, they will likely have to pay some overtime, because for many studies that involve live things, there isn’t a lot of flexibility as to when the work gets done. The forbs are flowering! The anoles are breeding! The daphnia are… uh, doing that thing that daphnia do! We need to record everything NOW! And that means less money for the postdoc in the future, because we are in a zero-sum game. If you need a bit of overtime now, your 2-year postdoc is now a 20-month postdoc. There isn’t any magic money for overtime.
  4. In the long term, scrupulous PIs will probably start budgeting more money for postdocs to cover unexpected overtime [5] They could conceivably just increase postdoc salaries to the threshold instead. But depending on the weekly number of hours postdocs are currently putting in, my guess is that it’s more cost-effective to pay overtime. On the other hand, PIs may not be that sensitive to a difference of less than $10,000 per year in their proposal budgets and prefer the simplicity of not having to worry about overtime. And I wouldn’t be surprised if overhead rates increase, too. After all, the universities now have to do a lot more bookkeeping to keep track of all those postdoc hours. Do you hear that, funding agencies and proposal reviewers? PIs will need more money to do the same research they have been doing to comply with the law. Please up your expectations accordingly, and be prepared to give out fewer higher-dollar-figure grants. Hey, Congress, you know what this also means? It means that funding agencies need more money to continue doing the same amount of research without exploiting their researchers. Please provide more money to scientific research. Yeah, that’s going to go over like lead balloon. So basically, I foresee an increased pressure at the funding agency level. Postdocs are already “expensive” with respect to the size of ecology grants, so postdoc positions may become fewer in number and/or shorter in length, something that some of the popular press pieces point out.

In summary, I think that for ecology postdocs not much is going to change. We’ll likely have more paperwork to do, and probably less flexibility. Meanwhile, fellow postdocs, we’ll just have to keep saving our pennies for that first sloop.


Image by Alex Kerney / Flickr / CC-BY-NC

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When should I start a family? (Actual advice rather than platitudes for the early career academic)

Standard replies as to when to have kids when you’re on the academic path are: “there’s no good time” or “when it’s right for you” or “there are tradeoffs” or variations on these themes. While this advice is true, it’s also useless. And for people who are looking for actionable advice, it’s frustrating to not be given anything concrete to work with.

So, here we go – actual advice.

First my background: I had my first kid during the third year I was a graduate student and my second kid during the first year I was a postdoc. As a fairly vocal proponent for new moms in academia, I’ve spoken to many graduate student and postdoc parents – mostly women. I am less familiar with becoming a parent while on the tenure track, though I know some parent assistant professors. I also hope that some tenure track folks (and others!) will weigh in in the comments to give their perspective.

This post is mainly aimed at women who are thinking of becoming biological mothers. This is because there are much more rigid constraints on them (us). For others, the optimal solution is a bit clearer. If you want to be a biological dad and also have the best shot at a successful academic career, wait until you’ve got a stable job, partner with someone younger than you, and have kids then. (If you’re wanting to be a biological dad and have already committed to partnering with someone NOT much younger than you, then parts of this post will be relevant.) Both men and women can also consider adoption, which can be done when you and/or your partner are in a stable job. And this post is particularly U.S.-oriented, because that has been my experience and that of most of the people I’ve talked to.

And one more note: this post is not about IF to have kids, which is a completely different question. It’s about WHEN. This post assumes you’ve already decided you want to have kids – or at least you think you’re pretty sure you want to.

Potential parents of all stripes: one quick starting piece of advice. Starting down the family path means entering a series of lotteries, each of which will have substantial impact on your life and none of which you have much control over. As a childless person, you are probably used to having enormous control over your life and being able to plan it. That will end. You can set your life up to be as resilient as possible, as flexible as possible, as full of support as possible, but you cannot count on anything. Once you start “planning” a family, you need to know that “plan” is the wrong word.

Fertility and biological constraints

You all know this, so I won’t go into too much detail. On average, after about 30, a woman’s fertility begins to decline – slowly at first and then more rapidly in the late 30’s. The medical establishment will consider you to be of “advanced maternal age” if you are 35 years or older, and you will get extra tests and treatments, because on average there is a higher risk of complications for both mom and babe. [1] I want to mention that the research to support fertility choices is horribly lacking. Commonly waived-around statistics come from data that are terribly out-of-date or based on skewed populations. As a scientist you will be horrified by the lack of science on fertility, pregnancy, and infancy. It’s a hard field to do science in and there appears to be little reward for it in the medical research establishment beyond making sure people don’t die. So it mostly doesn’t get done. The average age of childbirth in the U.S. is 26 years. If you were only optimizing for fertility, you should probably aim to give birth in your mid-twenties.

The problem with all this is that it’s talking statistically about a population – and not about YOU. Your personal fertility may peak earlier or later than the average. You may have no trouble getting pregnant at 39 and have a perfectly straightforward pregnancy and birth with a healthy baby as a result. On the other hand, you may find it difficult to impossible to pregnant at 39. No one knows. Lottery #1.

I think that our generation can learn from our forebears. The women a generation ahead of ours was told they could “have it all” and many worked on their careers first, only to discover they had enormous fertility challenges in their late 30’s. My opinion is that to avoid some stress and heartbreak, you ought to aim to have your last baby by the age of 35 or so. Is that a hard and fast rule? Of course not. But it’s naïve to think that you can start a family in your late 30’s and it definitely won’t be a problem. It might not be for you (you win the lottery!), but it might be. And by then it will be too late to change your decision.

Social Support Network

Rather than figuring out what stage of your career is best for having kids, I think it’s better to figure out at what stage of your life the situation is best for having kids. This is because if your outside-of-work situation is bad, your work will suffer. And if you have support outside of work, you will be better able to work. “It takes a village,” is a nice (and true) aphorism. But you don’t get handed a village. You have to build a village. This is especially true if you are not living close to relatives, who might be socially expected to chip in with child-raising – even if just a little. And it’s likely you’re not close to relatives if you’re in academia. So who is going to help you? Remember that your childless academic peers may be mostly uninterested in your new family adventure, so the group that you hang out with for beer on Friday evening doesn’t necessarily count. Only the closest of your childless friends are really going to help out. You need either good friends or a network of other parents – and preferably both.

I was three years into grad school when I had my first kid, but I had lived in Minneapolis for six years by then. I didn’t have any family nearby, but I had an established and inter-generational group of friends from outside of school. They were my lifeline. I also had a few good friends from my PhD program who helped me when I needed it. When my kid was 9 months old, we packed up and moved to Austin, Texas, for my husband’s postdoc. We knew no one. Not a soul. It was super hard. I don’t recommend being somewhere where you have no connections when you start a family. Your life will suffer. Your marriage will suffer. Your work will suffer. You need a village, even if it’s a small one.

If you must go somewhere with no connections, you will want to have been there before giving birth for as long as it takes you to make some reasonably good friends – for me, that means at least a year. And you will want to remain there (or go somewhere where you already have connections) for at least a year after birth. A hard and fast rule? No, of course not. But it’s naïve to think that your work won’t suffer if you don’t have substantial help with your infant. Maybe you will have an easy birth (lottery #2), a super healthy baby (lottery #3), a super easy baby (lottery #4), and escape postpartum depression and anxiety (lottery #5), and things won’t be too bad. It can work. But if you really want to optimize for success in academia (not to mention maintaining a good relationship with your partner and remaining sane), make sure you have a solid social support network for at least the first year of your child’s life.

Money (i.e. Health Insurance and Childcare)

Babies are expensive! Except, they actually aren’t. The physical needs of a baby in its first year — a place to sleep, clothes, food, diapers, car-seat — will run you a few hundred dollars up front, and then maybe a hundred dollars or so per month. That’s like having a couple pets. Not a big deal. What’s expensive is health care and childcare.

Health care first. My advice is simply this: make sure you have continuous and good health insurance (if you’re in the U.S., that is. The rest of civilization has figured out how to provide affordable health care for new mothers and their newborns.) An average uncomplicated vaginal hospital birth costs about $15,000 in the U.S. A C-section or more complicated vaginal one runs $20,000 or more. Because these are averages, your cost will vary. Note, though, that if you have a 10% coinsurance, you should expect to pay $1000 or more for the birth out of pocket. Also, make sure you get your newborn added to the appropriate healthcare plan as soon as possible. [2] This would be a good chore to pre-assign a trusted family member or friend. You and your partner are going to be exhausted and you really don’t need extra paperwork in that first month. If you miss the deadline, you will be thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for your newborn’s stay in the hospital – regardless of whether the baby needed any actual care. If your baby is pre-term and needs to stay in the hospital for more than the usual couple of days (which isn’t that uncommon), your costs could go up dramatically. Know what your health insurance’s maximum out-of-pocket amount is, and figure out how you could pay it if necessary. The main advice here is figure out how much birth is going to cost you (at minimum and at maximum), given your particular health insurance. It might be something you’ll need to consider in your family planning.

Childcare is the main expense of having an infant. It will either cost you an exorbitant amount of money or your job (or your partner’s). To give you a sense of it, full-time (i.e. 45 hours per week) childcare for a newborn will cost you anywhere from $10,000-$35,000 per year, depending on where you live and what type of childcare you’re willing to consider. Again, this is just for the U.S. Childcare elsewhere in the world ranges from much cheaper to you-can’t-get-childcare-for-a-newborn-the-mom-should-be-taking-care-of-the-baby.

You can pay this cost directly in money or in work time. For example, for my first kid, we hired a series of part-time babysitters to work 15 hours per week. My husband and I were able to arrange our hours so that we each got about 7 hours of worktime the three days the nanny worked. Then we each took a day off to care for the kid. That gave us each about 30 hours of work per week and cost only a couple hundred dollars per month. My husband made up a few more hours in evenings and weekends. It wasn’t a sustainable long-term situation for our careers or our marriage, but it worked for the six months we needed it to until my husband started a postdoc and we had more money to work with.

Field Work, Lab Work, and other Complications of Pregnancy

The timing of your pregnancy may have direct implications for your research. You may be incapacitated by nausea and exhaustion for nine months. Completely incapacitated. As in, you can’t get any substantial work done. This is a real thing that happens to some people. Or you may have few symptoms at all and be able to do your research just as usual. Most likely, you’ll fall somewhere in between. Unfortunately, you can’t know ahead of time how your body will react to pregnancy (lottery #6), so you may want to consider the whole spectrum of possibilities. Generally speaking, you can assume that you will be less productive in your work overall during pregnancy.

And you should look at specific parts of your research that may pose particularly challenges. If you work with chemicals in a lab, you may not be able to do your lab work during pregnancy (and possibly during breastfeeding) due to toxicity concerns. You may find bench work to be more and more tiring and difficult as your center of balance moves forward. If you do field work, you may struggle with being efficient and productive as your body gets bigger and more unwieldy. You also may be more likely to get injured as you try to do physical work with a body that you’re not accustomed to moving. Travel is another thing to think about. You will be forbidden from flying in the last month of pregnancy. If you end up with pregnancy complications, this period may be extended earlier. You will most likely not want to fly or travel by car, bus, or train for a particularly long distance in the last couple months of pregnancy, because it’s so uncomfortable. You will most likely not want to travel much in the first several months post-partum. That doesn’t mean you can’t, it just means that travel is likely to be rather unpleasant during these times.

Which field season can you skip? When is the best time to not be in the lab for a year? When do I not need to travel much? Depending on your research and career stage, these questions may weigh into the “when to start a family” question.

Career stage  

You’ll notice that “career stage” is not at the top of the list of considerations. That’s because I think the previous mentioned things are more important to your career overall than when exactly in your career you have the baby. But as people will tell you, there are various trade-offs to having kids at different stages. Here’s where I think those trade-offs lie:

Grad Student: Everything depends on your advisor. If you have a supportive advisor, having a baby as a grad student can be the best time to do so. If you have a particularly unsupportive advisor, having a baby as a grad student might be the worst time to do so. A secondary consideration is your department and university. Are they grad student parent friendly? Do they have written policies about what happens when a grad student has a baby? Will they accommodate your needs appropriately? Will they penalize you for not “making sufficient progress” on your dissertation while you’re pregnant and after you give birth? Will they put you in a suspended status if you want to take parental leave, or will you be forced to reapply to the program? Will you have continuous health insurance? You have rights as a grad student parent, but you may be the first to test them.

Also, if you’re considering becoming a grad student parent, I recommend waiting until after you are done with your course requirements. Both babies and courses are time-intensive on short timescales and neither is very forgiving when you’ve got multiple intensive demands on you.

If you have a supportive advisor and your department and university are at least moderately accommodating, then being a grad student when you have a kid has two major perks. First, you have a ton of time flexibility (assuming you’re done with courses). Your time is pretty much your own. If you’ve got a teaching assistantship, fitting a scheduled 20-hour per week job around being a parent is quite doable, although don’t expect to get too much research done. Second you are not on any “clocks.” By that, I mean that nobody is counting your publications at this stage. So if you publish less than you would have otherwise, it doesn’t count against you as much as it does later on. [3] e.g. I had exactly ZERO first-author publications when I defended (and just one in review) and I still got a postdoc.

The major drawback to being a grad student parent (assuming supportive advisor and reasonable department and university) is money. Your income is quite low as a grad student. Depending on where you live and the options available, you may have to take time off to care for your child because childcare is unaffordable. Having a partner with more income makes this a bit easier.

Postdoc: Things will depend on whether you have an independent fellowship or if you’re considered an employee of your institution. If the former, you have a lot of flexibility and you don’t really answer to a boss, so you can make your own time. On the negative side, you may have poor benefits, including substandard or a lack of health insurance. If you’re an employee, you’ll likely have access to reasonable health insurance and potentially a range of other benefits including parental leave, tax-advantaged accounts for childcare, and childcare subsidies. But, as an employee, the attitude of your advisor/boss is going to matter. With a supportive advisor/boss, you may have quite a bit of flexibility, but with an unsupportive one, you may have a very difficult time. It’s also possible, if you’re an employee, that you’ll be on a clock where you have to report when exactly you worked your 8 hours each day; this is hard to make work unless your partner has a more flexible job.

The biggest advantage to having a kid as a postdoc is that you’ll have more money than if you were a grad student – and so less financial stress. The biggest disadvantage is job insecurity. If you want to take parental leave and your advisor/boss doesn’t want you to, you can be fired. [4] If you have worked as a postdoc at a single place for more than a year, you are likely entitled to 12 weeks unpaid leave in which you can’t be fired. In the U.S. anyway. I have no idea what the rest of the world does. Most postdoc positions are short, and it can be hard to line up a new position while also trying to do research AND take care of a baby. It is not uncommon to have employment gaps in the postdoc years, and if you have a child, you will have to figure out how to afford childcare to apply for positions or keep up with research while you have zero income.

Another thing to consider is that you start to be penalized for slow research output as a postdoc. Pretty much every evaluating committee – for fellowships, for awards, for jobs – will look to see how many publications you have since getting your PhD, and the only way they would know you had a baby is if you put that on your CV. [5] Do so at your own risk. So you’ll likely need to be a postdoc considerably longer than you would have if you had had a baby at a different career stage to be competitive at getting a tenure-track job. And you may never be as competitive as you would have been had you not had a baby as a postdoc.

Adjunct: Everything is all bad in having a baby as an adjunct. You have little time and flexibility because you have a high teaching demand to make enough to live on. Your income is low. You have no benefits, and possibly can’t afford health insurance at all. And you have no job security. I honestly can’t think of any benefit.

Tenure-track faculty: Things will depend somewhat on your institution’s policies, and in fact, your institution is most likely to even have policies for this career stage. On the other hand, because there are likely fixed policies, you may not have a lot of negotiating room for getting what you need. On the plus side, you don’t have a boss per se to report to, so your time is mostly your own, giving you a lot of flexibility. And most places will let you “stop the clock” for a year, helping to reduce (but not eliminate) the penalty caused by your reduced research output when you go up for tenure. You also have job security and a reasonable income, so you can probably afford decent childcare – as much as any other professional, anyway.

But there are some real downsides to having a kid as tenure-track faculty, too. For one, you’re older, so it might be harder to get pregnant, to stay pregnant, and to be free of complications. You also have many more work responsibilities than you do as a grad student or postdoc. You can’t just ditch your students for months at a time, for example. You may have employees, service responsibilities, as well as teaching and doing research. You probably need to make decisions that affect others, so you need to be always on call, which is stressful. Getting funding can be particularly hard, as grant cycles are slow and infrequent, meaning that the very times you are least available to your job may be the very times you need to be intensely focused on writing proposals. Collaborations can be hard to start or maintain as your availability will wax and wane at unknown times. And travel may be both more important to your job (to raise your profile and form collaborations) and particularly difficult while pregnant and as a parent of an infant.


Now that I’ve hopefully provided you some information and topics for consideration so you can better plan when to have a kid, we have to get back to that thing about “plan” being the wrong word. You see, you can decide you want to have a kid at a particular time, but for various reasons it may not work out. For example, you can only conceive for a very short period of time each month. If you and/or your partner are traveling a lot or have extensive fieldwork or other demanding work activities, you may miss the conception period month after month. Women who are very stressed will find it more difficult to conceive. Then there’s just random luck; various sources will quote various statistics, but it’s clear that even in a perfect situation, the chance of conception is quite a bit less than 100% each month. The medical profession will tell you that if you’ve been actively trying for pregnancy for a year [6] six months if you’re over 35 because your time is running out and they want you to get pregnant ASAP for heath-related reasons and been unsuccessful, you and your partner should be tested to see if anything is wrong. The point here is: you could conceive on your first try. Or it could take a year or more. There’s no way of knowing (lottery #7).

Once you’re pregnant, the viability of your pregnancy is pretty much out of your hands (lottery #8). Depending on who you ask, the rate of miscarriage is 10% or 20% or 30% or even 50%. Those higher numbers include very early pregnancy when you might not even know you’re pregnant. It seems like something around 15% or 20% is a reasonably accepted number if we just consider women who come to know they are pregnant because they missed a period and so have been pregnant for at least a couple weeks before miscarrying. And that’s still a high percentage – that’s one out of every five to seven known pregnancies that ends early. So even if you become pregnant at the time of your planning, you may have to start over again for a viable pregnancy.

Even once you’ve made it to the third trimester, you can’t plan the timing of your child’s birth with any certainty (lottery #9). Consider that there’s an entire month in which the medical establishment considers your baby to be “on time.” Add to that another month in which it’s not uncommon to have a preterm baby, and you’ve got a two-month window in which the baby could arrive.

In terms of timing, I think it’s actually better to think about the absolute worst times to have a baby and try to not have one then, since you have more direct control over that. I’ll call these Very Bad Times. “I don’t want to have a baby at the same time I am defending my dissertation.” Fine and dandy; plan your relations around that, doing the math carefully and remembering that babies can come early. “I don’t want to have a baby in the first six months of my first tenure-track job.” Perfectly reasonable. Plan your contraception accordingly.

So when should you have a baby if you want a career in academia? In my opinion, plan to have your baby at the earliest possible time when (1) you feel emotionally ready for intense responsibility; (2) you are and will be with a committed partner and surrounded by a community who will help you for the first year(s) of your baby’s life; (3) you have enough financial stability that one parent can take time off to raise your baby or you can afford childcare; and (4) it is not a Very Bad Time.

This is my (relatively informed) opinion. But I am just one person, one perspective. When thinking about starting a family, you ought to try to get many opinions, many perspectives. Like almost everything in parenting, there is no One Right Way (and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something). Ask around. Everything will depend on your unique situation. But you will have commonalities with many people. Take everything you hear from everyone and put it together in a way that makes sense for you.

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Let’s stop ignorance-shaming

The most egregious time I was ignorance-shamed I was working for a mid-sized non-profit whose mission was to raise money to fund cancer research. I had moved to a new city and had ended up at the non-profit through a temp agency; I worked part-time doing administrative tasks. While I was there, the executive director – a successful and effective leader – retired. She had been there for over a decade. The organization spent a lot of money to contract a recruitment agency to find a replacement. Eventually they hired a man who I can only describe as a con-artist. Once he was in, he clearly had no idea what he was doing. The organization booted him within three weeks, but they were left without a leader. One of the board members stepped in as an interim executive director while a new search was conducted.

This interim executive director was a retired man who I had never really met before. One day, I found myself in his office – I think he was interviewing each of the staff so he knew who was who. At the beginning, I must have asked a clarifying question that showed that I didn’t understand how our non-profit was organized beyond the immediate office. I probably asked what the board did, since all I knew was that he was from the board. He lambasted me. “How can you work here and not understand non-profit governance?!” He then took this lack of knowledge on my part to assume I was stupid. I seethed inwardly as he talked down to me for the rest of the meeting, including explaining elementary math concepts. [1] Silver lining: he did explain non-profit governance structure, so I learned quite a bit, even though I wanted to punch him in the face the whole time.

This interaction was all about power. This man was demonstrating his power over me in a really obnoxious way. I was 28, a part-time administrative temp. There was no reason I should have known anything about non-profits beyond my immediate job. But this man, stuck in his own worldview, couldn’t conceive of anyone not understanding non-profit organizational structure, since it was something so deep in his own knowledge bank – something he learned so long ago. In his worldview, if someone didn’t know something so basic (to him), then they must be stupid and worthy of contempt.

Unfortunately, academics are not immune from ignorance shaming. Academia is an odd world, with its own unwritten rules, norms, and mores. Most academics have only ever worked in academia, and those who have been around for a while have a deep knowledge bank of academic culture. When you’ve been steeped in something so long, it’s hard to remember what it was like to be a beginner.

My post on frequent moving in academia hit a nerve and generated a lot of comments – on this blog, on Inside Higher Ed where it was republished, and on social media. One type of comment I saw regularly (though thankfully not in majority) was the idea that young academics struggling with frequent moves should have known better. Frequent moving is so typical, these commenters argued, that young folks should’ve known that when they start a PhD program. They signed up for it. They’re getting their just desserts.

But frequent moving isn’t a well-known trait of early academia outside of academia. Most non-academics are genuinely surprised when you explain to them job specificity and job scarcity within academic science. [2] As a typical anecdote, my mother-in-law, who lives in Princeton NJ wondered why her accomplished son and daughter-in-law couldn’t just go and get jobs at the local university (i.e. Princeton) after they got their PhDs. There is no reason young people should know that the academic career path now involves a series of frequent moves right at a time of life when it is most difficult.

I started a PhD relatively late at age 29. Why? Because I wanted the credential that would allow me to do research professionally in a field I cared about. And because I had absorbed the mantra that the U.S. needs more scientists and engineers. I figured there were jobs everywhere. Why wouldn’t I? What goes on inside academia is opaque to the rest of the world.

Even if I had asked established academics directly about the challenges of an academic career (and I did), most wouldn’t have mentioned the early difficulties of frequent moving. They’re either older, when this transition period didn’t exist as much, or they lucked out and didn’t have to move a lot, or they weren’t much affected by multiple moves due to their identity and life circumstances, or they suffered, but made it through mostly whole. Established academics are a biased sample of people who attempt the academic career track.

So this idea that prospective graduates students should “know better” than to enter academia if they don’t want to move frequently in their late twenties and thirties is ludicrous. There is no reason to expect them to know anything about frequent moves. And suggesting that the challenges early career academics encounter when they must move frequently is “part of the deal” because they should have known better is ignorance-shaming, pure and simple.

It galls me when academics ignorance-shame. We are in the business of knowledge creation. Our whole purpose is to recognize when there is a knowledge gap (among humanity!) and try to fill it. What academic hasn’t had the experience of learning something new only to develop a dozen new questions that don’t (yet) have answers? What academic hasn’t had the experience of being surprised that no one has tackled Research Question X yet? What academic hasn’t faced their own ignorance time and again?

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that ignorance-shaming has connections and intersections with issues of privilege, power, class, gender, and race. It is most often that people in positions of more power ignorance-shame those with less power. It’s easy to be trapped in one’s own worldview – to believe that everyone around you has had a similar education, similar life experiences, knows what you do. But we lead diverse lives. We know different things.

Ignorance-shaming is the flip side of imposter syndrome. And I’d hypothesize that those who have been routinely ignorance-shamed are more likely to experience severe imposter syndrome. If you already think that you should know things that you don’t or that everyone else knows All The Things [3] inside scoop: they don’t, an offhanded ignorance-shaming comment about a gap in your knowledge can be devastating to your confidence.

When I was in college, a European friend of mine was routinely ignorance-shamed by our mutual friends about his lack of knowledge of American culture. He wasn’t familiar with the Muppets, for example, and when someone made an offhand reference to Gonzo that he didn’t understand, he’d be teased. Back then, I recognized it as mean, but I didn’t know what to do and remained silent. Now I can do better and call it out. “Hey, you’re making fun of him because he didn’t grow up with the Muppets. That’s not cool. Let’s watch an episode all together this weekend and show him what it’s about.”

Let’s be conscious of the words we use. “Why don’t you know that?” “Really?! You never learned that…?” “I thought everyone knew…” “How did you get this far without learning…?” “You should have known better.” Unless you’re on an examining committee, there’s really no need to comment on someone’s ignorance about something. Recognizing our own ignorance is how we learn and grow. Recognizing humanity’s ignorance is how we do science. Recognizing another’s ignorance is an opportunity for kindness.

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Pie charts: seldom or never?

So, the other day, I was casually browsing Twitter when I saw that Meg Duffy had posted some preliminary results from her latest survey on authorship over at Dynamic Ecology. “Oooh, pretty graph,” I tweeted of her pie chart. To which, I received this reply:

Which took me out of casual mode and made me stop and think. Because, to be honest, I am not all BFF with pie charts. I’m not even a minor fan of pie charts. I spent a bit of effort to try to convince my PI to get rid of an atrocious slide in his tenure talk that contained four pie charts. [1] He didn’t. And he got tenure anyway. So clearly pie charts aren’t make-or-break. Gavin and I exchanged several tweets about good data visualization (“data viz” for those in the know), and I think we’d generally agree on the basics. But I wonder if there might not be two pie chart camps among those savvy in data viz: those who are against pie charts at all costs, and those willing to tolerate their (limited) presence.

I’ve been interested in data visualization and graphic design for a while now, and back in the fall I read Tufte’s classic and influential The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. (Quick review: fun to read, lots of pictures, goes fast, covers all the fundamentals.) Tufte doesn’t mince words when it comes to pie charts:

A table is nearly always better than a dumb pie chart; the only worse design than a pie chart is several of them, for then the viewer is asked to compare quantities located in spatial disarray both within and between charts […] Given their low density and failure to order numbers along a visual dimension, pie charts should never be used.

And after reading this, I felt vindicated in my loathing for pie charts and swore them off forever. But then I kept reading. Next up on my data viz reading list was a pair of books by Nathan Yau: Visualize This and Data Points. (Quick review: no need to read both, if I had to pick I’d pick the latter, definitely more up-to-date than Tufte, but denser and not quite as fun.) And Yau, unlike Tufte, doesn’t believe that pie charts are inherently bad. He doesn’t love them, of course, and gives some nice alternatives to them. But he sometimes uses them himself.

Sometimes a pie chart makes sense.

All the arguments against pie charts are true. People are terrible at comparing sizes of pie pieces, so for comparing exact values they’re worthless. And people are also terrible at comparing angles. In any case, why would you use a two-dimensional circle to represent a set of one-dimensional values? A short table uses “less ink” — a Tufte tenet. But if you must make a graphic, there are several nice alternatives. The stacked horizontal bar graph, for example, is one of my favorites. It essentially unwinds the pie into a straight single dimension. And for pie charts with many slices, I think this is the way to go.

But sometimes a pie chart makes sense.

Sometimes pie charts make sense for the simple reason that people are familiar with them. If I have your attention for only a brief period (in this blog post, during a talk), and I show you a circle divided up into pieces of different colors, you know exactly what you’re looking at. If I show you a horizontal bar graph, I have more explaining to do: “The full width of the bar represents 100% and it’s divided up into parts that represent the fractions that make up that 100%.” Too much to say. Too little time.

That being said, I think pie charts serve us best when they’re limited to two major pieces. Let’s say I set up a survey that asks whether pie charts should never be used or pie charts should seldom be used. I could report the results like this, in a decidedly Tuftian manner:

I don’t know about you, but I’m lazy, and comparing those numbers means doing some (albeit gentle) mental gymnastics. I want a picture! Many pie chart loathers would recommend something like this:


Okay. That’s better. But I still have to stop and inspect that graph a bit. I need to read the axis carefully to understand that the width of the bar is 100% and I learn that “Never” is more than half by comparing it to the axis, not because it’s easy to see that it takes up more than half the distance from 0% to 100%. Least conveniently, my eyes need to flip back-and-forth between the legend and the data, because it turns out to be non-trivial to label a horizontal bar chart. (In Google Sheets, the program I made to make the charts, you can’t directly label horizontal bar charts. I also played with Plotly for 20 minutes and was likewise unable to make a labeled horizontal bar chart. [2] Twenty minutes! On a fake graph! What am I doing with my life?…)

So, let me just suggest: sometimes a pie chart makes sense.


You see what I mean? You get it immediately. Slightly more than half of people think you should never use pie charts. Most of the rest think they should seldom be used. Simple. To the point. Intuitive — because you are used to seeing pie charts.

So when exactly does a pie chart makes sense?

  1. A pie chart might make sense if you have two major categories you want to compare (and few minor ones that can be lumped).
  2. A pie chart might make sense if you don’t need your audience to grasp the specific values, but rather the the approximate ones. People are pretty good at inferring when a circle is divided into halves, quarters, or thirds.
  3. A pie chart might make sense if your audience will only see your visualization for a short period of time, like during a talk or on social media.
  4. A pie chart might make sense if you’re doing an exploratory analysis, because they’re quick to make with just about any software. Why would you spend twenty minutes trying to make a decent horizontal stacked bar chart when you could make a pie chart in just a minute or two?

Most of the time you can come up with a better visualization than a pie chart. But pie charts do have their limited place. I am decidedly in the “seldom” category.

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Scheduled Sanity Days

One of the challenges of academia is learning to work for yourself. Before my science life, I worked for a large bureaucracy, a small family business, and a medium-sized non-profit. And in all cases, someone else was telling me what to do. At the small business, my work was dictated to me on an hour-to-hour basis. At the non-profit, I had daily and weekly milestones to meet. At the bureaucracy, I had to give monthly updates on my progress on long-term projects. Being told what to do is, oddly, freeing. It give structure to your work life and makes it easier to see when you’ve made achievements.

But in academia – starting from the time you enter graduate school – your time is mostly your own. Your goals are self-set. And if you have milestones to meet, you typically have no one to police their achievement but yourself. This sounds wonderful in theory, but working for yourself is a very hard thing to do. And the skills needed are not taught anywhere. They are one of the many things you’re just supposed to “pick up” on your way through grad school (and beyond).

The lack of formal training in things like project management and working efficiently is part of what causes many (probably most) academics to lead workaholic-style lives. There’s always that sense that “I could be doing more.” And the academic culture encourages this mentality. As a result, academics sometimes aren’t aware of activities that can increase long-term efficiency and well-being at a short-term cost.

One of these things that I discovered about a year ago are Scheduled Sanity Days. Most months I pick a day – and importantly, schedule it on my calendar – during which I attend to neglected parts of my life. Now, I have two young kids, so this day is necessarily a weekday one, a day when I have paid childcare available and can concentrate on my activities without outside demands and interruptions. Being a weekday, it also means I am not getting academic work done. And this sometimes causes stress – especially if I’m on a deadline. But I stick to my Sanity Days. I need them for my long-term well-being.

If you’ve ever read up on working efficiently, you’ve no doubt encountered a diagram which is divided into four quadrants that contain tasks to do. The quadrants divide tasks into those that are urgent vs. not urgent and those that are quick to finish vs. those that require more time. [1] Or more frequently, you’ll see urgent vs. non-urgent and important vs. not very important. I don’t find this distinction terribly useful, as it’s clear that one oughtn’t spend any time on not-important matters. And the general wisdom is that we naturally attend to urgent tasks at the expense of non-urgent ones, but that to really accomplish things, we need to make room for those things that may not be urgent, but are long-term important.

Each week, I create a task list for my household. My husband and I use it as a communication tool to make sure that urgent and important matters are attended to each week, and that non-urgent matters are not forgotten about. Sad to say, this list is typically 40 to 50 tasks long. We usually finish about 75% of tasks in a given week, and the ones that remain unfinished are mostly the ones that are not urgent and that take more than fifteen minutes to accomplish. This is my Quandrant of Neglect. These tasks languish on the task list for weeks, months, years. And they accumulate. Which for me, leads to a lot of stress.


The thing is, many of these neglected tasks would actually make our lives easier or more efficient. But the up-front cost is high, and finding two or three hours at a stretch to work on a task that isn’t fun or relaxing is pretty much impossible to fit into a life where my husband and I both work full-time jobs and then do second-shifts of child-wrangling in the evenings and on weekends, as well as try to take care of our own physical and mental health and nurture our relationship with each other. These neglected tasks are just never important enough in the moment to rise to the top of the priority list.

So I invented Sanity Days: a straight 7-8 hour stretch per month of tackling the neglected tasks.

What do I do on Sanity Days? Here are some examples:

  • Create a monthly menu of kids’ weekday snack and lunch meals. We have to send a morning snack in with my older kid to school, so it has to be something that travels easily. My younger’s snacks and lunches are prepared by my childcare provider while she is watching the kid, so they need to be straightforward and quick. I want all the meals to be varied and healthy and not be repeats of the food we have for breakfast and dinner. And the meals need to consist of ingredients we have on hand. My husband and I used to scramble on a day-to-day basis to figure out these meals. It was stressful during mornings and time-consuming. And my kids ended up eating the same things a lot. Now we have a varied and healthy menu that simply repeats every four weeks. I also made up a grocery list for each week, so that it’s fast and easy to make sure we procure the ingredients we need for all the meals when we do grocery shopping. The creation of the menu and shopping lists was totally worth the four or five hours of effort, eliminating much stress and frustration from my day-to-day life.
  • Organize the basement. We have moved three times in the past six years and we have two kids. Which means we have a crapload of Stuff. In boxes. In the basement. Some of this Stuff is temporary stuff we really need to keep for a while – such as clothes my older kid has outgrown that my younger kid isn’t big enough for yet. Some of this Stuff is long-term stuff we want to keep – such as our high-quality hiking and camping equipment that we used a lot more before becoming parents and hope to use again once the younger kid is older. Some of this Stuff is stuff that we use regularly, but not on a day-to-day basis, like hardware tools, a sewing machine, ice skates. Some of this Stuff we really can get rid of – baby bouncers, clothes to donate, broken electronics. But all of the Stuff needs some hands-on attention, so we know what is where and can access the things we need when we need them. I took a Sanity Day and got my husband to take one as well, and we spent a full day moving, organizing, labeling, and culling our Stuff. Now when one of us says, “oh, I think that’s in the basement,” we can quickly grab the needed item, instead of spending an hour looking for it – or buying a new one (which, sad to say, we’ve done for lack of searching time).
  • Fill out forms. For some reason, none of the books for expecting parents mentions the huge increase in household paperwork once you have kids. We have to do forms for school. Forms for daycare. Forms for summer camps. Forms for extra-curricular activities. Forms arrive from the doctors that need to be tracked. Forms to fill out to ensure we are reimbursed for healthcare expenses. Insurance forms. Census forms. Tax forms. Bills. I do most of our household’s paperwork, but the steady trickle of it makes it a burden to keep track of and do in small bits. Instead, I save up the paperwork and do it in batches. [2] Batching is an excellent work-efficiency tactic, by the way. And I use it in my work life, too. Anything that can wait a month gets done on my Sanity Day. This frees up my time – and more importantly, my attention — so I can focus day-to-day on more important things, like my family and my work.

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